Trump's Muslim Moment

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Pew Research Center estimates that about 0.9 percent of Americans are Muslim, which would equal about 2.8 million men, women, and children. At a town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday night, a man asked GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, “When can we get rid of them?”

Above is a video of the full exchange, and here’s a quick recap:

“We have a problem in this country—it’s called Muslims,” the man says. “We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American [unintelligible] birth certificate.”

“We need this question,” Trump tells the crowd.

“We have training camps growing where they want to kill us,” the man continues. “That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?”

In response to the bigoted question, Trump offered a series of vague, non-committal statements. “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things,” he replied. “And you know, a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there, and we’re gonna be looking at that and plenty of other things.”

When pressed for more details by a NBC political reporter after the town hall, the Trump campaign offered a series of bewildering non-sequiturs.

Perhaps realizing this didn’t make any sense, Trump’s campaign then took another shot at responding.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. When Bill O’Reilly asked him if there was a “Muslim problem in the world” during a 2011 interview, Trump replied, “Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I don’t notice Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center.” He also opposed the construction of an Islamic community center that foes nicknamed the “Ground Zero mosque” in Lower Manhattan in 2010.

But his weak response in New Hampshire is a sharp contrast to his public persona. Trump constantly touts himself as a man of boldness and bluntness. He dismisses his opponents as weak, soft, and “low energy.” This is the difference between Trump and President Obama, he constantly tells crowds. He’ll build a wall on the border—and he’ll even make Mexico pay for it. Trump will negotiate an even tougher nuclear deal with Iran, he says. He’ll make China play fair on international trade. He’ll stand up to America’s enemies. Trump isn’t like all these politicians, he proclaims. He’s the real deal. He’s tough.

Until he meets a New Hampshire voter, that is. When faced with deeply disturbing rhetoric directed at a religious minority, the Donald suddenly couldn’t offer more than verbal handwaving and vague promises. When confronted about his response by reporters, his campaign fell back on talking points and deflections.

John McCain, who Trump belittled in July for being a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, had no problem confronting his own supporters in 2008:

But Trump? He’ll “look into it” and move on. If this is the best Donald Trump can offer against a New Hampshire voter, then Beijing, Tehran, and Mexico City can rest easy.